Our resident pharmacist looks at the causes, symptoms and best treatments for excess earwax.
By Rita Ghelani
If your hearing is muffled and your ears are starting to feel blocked or painful, you might have earwax build-up. Excess earwax can be easily treated, but if you suffer from recurrent earwax problems it is worth building a prevention method into your daily routine.
Our resident pharmacist Rita Ghelani looks at the causes, symptoms and best treatments for earwax build-up:
What is earwax?
Earwax, also referred to as cerumen, is a yellowish substance produced in the glands of the ears to protect them from damage and infection. Tiny hairs and wax help keep the ear canal clean, by trapping dust and other particles. This means that sound can pass along the ear canal freely.
Earwax provides a protective coating of the ear canal, acting as a temporary water repellent.
Earwax also provides a protective coating of the ear canal, acting as a temporary water repellent.
Earwax is not usually noticeable; it slowly moves out of the ears taking the trapped dirt and dust with it and may fall out of the ears during sleep or when washing your hair.
What causes earwax to build-up?
In some people, earwax is naturally produced at a faster rate than normal and this leads to a build-up of excess earwax.
Earwax can also build-up and cause problems if you have narrow ear canals or the ear canals are formed at an angle that slows down the natural passage of wax through the ear canal.
Using ear plugs or hearing aids can push earwax further down the ear canal causing it to build up. Earwax can also become drier with age, which can cause earwax to impact in the ear canals.
Symptoms of earwax build-up
Sometimes there are no symptoms associated with the build-up of wax in the ears. If earwax becomes impacted, then the most common symptom is hearing loss. Other symptoms of earwax include:
- Ear discomfort – a feeling of fullness in the ear.
- Pain in the ear.
- Tinnitus(noises or ringing in the ear).
- A blocked feeling in the ear.
- Itchy ears.
- Possibly dizziness.
- Yellow, waxy discharge from the ears – this is more common in children than in adults.
How do I remove excess earwax?
✔️ Ear drops
Earwax can be easily treated with ear drops available from the pharmacy. They are designed to loosen and soften the wax, so it is easier to remove. Drops containing sodium bicarbonate or sodium chloride can also help to loosen up earwax.
Ear drops containing urea hydrogen peroxide are also available from the pharmacy. These work by breaking down the earwax into smaller pieces, making it easier to remove. These can be used in combination with a bulb syringe device that will clean the ear.
✔️ Olive oil
Olive oil ear drops are often used as the first line treatment for earwax. When put into the ear olive oil soaks into hardened wax and softens it, making it easier to flow in the ear canal. Olive oil ear drops should be used three or four times a day for at least five days to soften and aid removal of the wax.
✔️ Ear irrigation
If symptoms of earwax persist then ear irrigation may be considered. This involves a trained nurse flushing the ear with warm water with a gentle pressured water-jet. This softens and dislodges the wax in the ear. Ear drops to soften the ear wax need to be used for at least five days before having ear irrigation.
✖️ Ear syringing
Ear syringing involves using a metal syringe and literally syringing the ears. This is no longer recommended as the ear irrigation system is more effective and a safer method of ear wax removal than ear syringing.
Microsuction of earwax uses gentle suction to clean the ear and is more comfortable than irrigation and syringing. It involves a small, thin probe being inserted into the ear canal and then applying so gentle suction to remove blockage. There is no need to use ear drops to soften the wax before treatment.
✖️ Ear candles
Using ear candles is also not recommended, as there is no evidence to show that this method is effective.
How do I prevent the build-up of earwax?
Earwax plays an essential role in maintaining the ear canals. Earwax should never be removed using cotton buds or by putting anything into the ear.
Earwax should never be removed using cotton buds or by putting anything into the ear.
Using cotton buds, fingernails or other sharp objects to clean the delicate and sensitive ear canal can increase the risk of damaging the ear and pushing wax further into the ear canal.
If you suffer from recurrent earwax problems, you may benefit from using olive oil or sodium bicarbonate regularly – this can be daily, weekly or fortnightly, depending on how much earwax you are producing.
When should I visit the doctor?
If the following symptoms persist, make an appointment with your GP:
- If you have persistent earache that is not getting better after using drops to remove earwax.
- You have a high temperature and earache, this may mean that you have an infection in the ears.
- If you are getting a discharge from the ears or notice any swelling around the ear.
- If you are experiencing deafness, dizziness or severe headaches.